If the UKRI wants to support a diverse research environment, it must include independent researchers.

If the UKRI wants to support a diverse research environment, it must include independent researchers.

Responding to the publication of the UKRI EDI strategy, Helen Kara And Linda Baines argue that by excluding the work of independent researchers, the strategy will fight to achieve its goal of promoting an inclusive research system.

Earlier this year, UKRI published EDI strategy which they say “signifies our commitment to a thriving system of research and innovation for all and for all”. UKRI is committed to value “diverse people, ideas, ways of thinking, skills and perspectives” and to include and support diversity of people and ideas through its funding.” Six UKRI research councils, including the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, have subsequently published EDI action plans.

None of these documents mention independent researchers. This is a serious omission for three reasons:

First, there is a growing number of independent researchers in the UK. Scientific societies such as Association for Social Research (CPA) and British Association for Educational Research (BERA) report a significant proportion of independent researchers among their members. BERA, in particular, has Forum of Independent Researchers. This is partly due to growing job insecurity; self-employment may seem like a safer and healthier option. Other independent researchers successfully conduct research while working full-time after deciding that a career in academia is not for them. And there is evidence that others are still being squeezed out of research careers. precisely because of this discrimination UKRI claims to be addressing this issue with its EDI strategy. This growth in independent scholarship is also reflected in an increase in the number of people who enter research after careers elsewhere and earn PhDs later in life, as reflected in a recent study by Linda Baines, “Late Blooming Researchers” (forthcoming in NCIS Guide for Independent Scientists).

Second, independent researchers can be flexible, responsive, skilled, and cost-effective. Our overheads are low. When working with academic colleagues on applications for research funding, it can be shocking to see universities asking for huge percentages of “overhead costs” – up to 50% in some cases. Thus, UKRI has a strong economic case for working with independent researchers, as much of the funds could be spent on research and innovation rather than on institutional coffers.

Third, independent scientists are an untapped resource of ideas, research, and energy. We offer points of view that are not directly influenced by institutional pressure, restrictions and power games. We don’t have to meet departmental goals, spend months marking tasks, or worry about externally imposed performance metrics. This means we have more time to think, read and do research; we offer an outside perspective that can allow us to offer fresh ideas and deeper understanding; as a result, our research projects and practices can be richer, deeper, and more innovative.

It is almost impossible for independent researchers to find funding to support our research. Independent researchers can apply for funding from the British Academy and Leverhulme’s Small Research Grants Programme, but we are not eligible to apply for funding from any UK Research Council on our own. Members of organizations such as National Coalition of Independent Scientists (NCIS) may apply for several small grants from these organizations, but the amounts offered are far from those available from national research sponsors. Some independent researchers hold honorary research positions at universities. But again, since we are not qualified as staff, we must rely on our academic colleagues to include us in applications for research funding to the UK Research Councils.

Several years ago, before the formation of UKRI, Helen Cara asked the former Executive Director of the ESRC why independent researchers were not eligible to apply for research funding. The answer was that the ESRC was not created to fund individual or small groups of researchers. Helen suggested that the Arts Council was well placed to advise on how to make it successful, but so far that suggestion seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Also, in our experience, research councils may take the work of independent researchers for granted. For example, after Helen was asked to do a major project appraisal, she was informed that there was “no budget” for such work. Undoubtedly, a remnant of the time when all scientists were paid and such work constituted an academic service, testifies to a delayed perception of an academic career that does not correspond to modern practice.

A couple of years ago, the SRA did a major study diversity and inclusion in research. The UKRI appears to have completely ignored this because it includes independent researchers. The SRA study recognizes independent researchers as part of the UK’s research context, saying: “Social research is carried out in the public sector, research agencies, charities, academia, research institutes and think tanks, and through independent researchers.” (Boulman, Bell & Harney 2021 p6) Interestingly, one of the findings was that EDI issues are a factor in more than half of researchers’ decisions to become independent. This suggests that many independent researchers are already marginalized for a number of reasons, and then further marginalized by our own national research sponsors.

We do not understand why the UKRI still excludes independent researchers. The further exclusion of independent researchers undermines the UKRI claim to include “everyone”. More importantly, it is a waste of a valuable national resource. Independent scientists bring professional and practical knowledge and skills that enrich our research. Organizations such as NCIS offer a community and professional network for independent researchers who may feel isolated and neglected. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of independent researchers in the UK. We call on UKRI to include us directly and practically in the research and innovation system of the UK, to which we belong.

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Image credit: Markus List via Unsplash.com.

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